Democracy in Judaism – “Majority rule” is biblical; dissent always was protected
December 20, 1991
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
Few people anger me as much as they who allege that Judaism and democracy are incompatible. Indeed, as I have argued many times, Judaism may not indulge the individual unbridled freedom. But neither does any democratic government.
However, freedom of thought and expression are remarkably well protected in Jewish law. The silencing or punishment of dissenters is sought only by fanatics and zealots who feel they are possessed of absolute truth and admit of no possibility of error in their views.
Not so long ago there were reports in The Jewish Week that in the Rabbinical Council of America there was a witch hunt, 4 some members being charged with heretical views. Rabbi Milton Polin, then the organization’s president, ruled that members were held accountable only for their deeds or behavior when it constituted rejection of Halacha, but not for their theological views in which Judaism long tolerated a remarkable diversity.
The classic example is the dispute between two giants in the Middle Ages, one insisting that God is incorporeal, the other holding that even the opposite view is not heresy.
Recently I read an essay by Dr. Zorach Wahrhaftig, a winner of the coveted Israel Prize for his service to Hebrew law. It dealt with one fundamental feature of democracy: majority rule. The essay analyzed every aspect of that principle, and it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the Bible is the earliest source for its articulation.
In antiquity one person made the legal decisions the king or the head of the clan. Even when several people might have participated in the trial or the deliberations, respect for the ruling decisor required that his view prevail. And it is in the Book of Exodus that we find the unequivocal mandate decide by majority vote (Exodus 23:2) – and, in voting, do not feel bound by any superiors voting at the same time.
Yet that did not mean a majority is always right or that those who differed with the majority could not dissent. If the vote in a three-judge court was 2 to 1, then the dissenter was not privileged to identify who he was because that would cause the party who lost the case to honor him and hate his colleagues. The majority decision became the decision of all three, and all had to uphold it.
Yet, if a judge was overruled by the highest court in Jerusalem, he was obligated to abide by the decision of the higher authority and act accordingly. But that did not preclude him from arguing forever that the reversal was an error. In his official capacity he could not apply the rule his superiors had reversed, but he was free to say even to teach that his superiors had erred.
In this way freedom of dissent was protected for judges. But what of a minority that disagrees with the majority in other matters? Can it be coerced to accept the will of the majority? In this connection Dr. Wahrhaftig cites the rules, and they gladden the heart and make Rabbi Polin’s stand authentic Halacha.
There are limitations on the majority• Its decision is binding on the minority in many matters, but not in all.
The most important exception for us today is the exclusion of matters of the spirit one’s faith, beliefs, thoughts. If they lead to deviationist behavior or subversion, then the majority might take action to protect its views. But the majority could not inhibit the expression of opposing views.
Dr. Wahrhaftig even cites an actual case that involved a rabbi whose sermons included some questionable statements. But because they led to no action unacceptable halachically, they were not actionable.
I do think a group may organize for the propagation of doctrines they share, and a rabbinical group may demand of those who are members that they do not subvert those doctrines in the instruction they give their members or students. But even Orthodox Judaism permits of such a wide range in doctrines, and even in practice, that “witch hunts’’ are certainly not in order.
The majority rule, however, plays its role in government and in virtually every aspect of social and economic organization. In the Middle Ages there were many conflicts about the power of the majority to impose taxes on the minority. But there was no difficulty, for example, in empowering a majority of residents in a common court to impose its will upon a minority to share the cost of improvements.
The one great exception was in the spiritual realm. If the majority rule were to apply there, then, alas, Jews might have to say that a majority of non-Jews could impose its will upon the Jews. And this was unthinkable.
The Torah had said, in feet, that we were chosen not because we were many; on the contrary, we were the smallest of all peoples. (Deuteronomy 7:68) Thus we, too, learned not to flee our minority status but to hold that what is right and wrong is not determined by a vote of the majority.